The virtual classroom, simply by virtue of having that layer of technology, does bring with it several risks that, as a facilitator and instructional designer, you need to be able to both anticipate and alleviate.
If you know ahead of time what some of these risks are likely to be, you can plan how to approach them in the live session and have contingencies ready to put into action when the need arises.
Clearly, the first risk lies in the technology itself. Will the learner be able to access the training room? Does their computer have the correct operating software and the right plug-ins? Is someone trying to use a mobile device?
The first way that you can anticipate and alleviate this risk is by being prepared ahead of time and taking care of as much of the setup work PRIOR to the actual live event as you can.
Thankfully, most virtual classrooms download the necessary software after you access the session link, so there is no need to have learners install anything themselves beforehand. That being said, we always recommend our learners download the software and test it with their system well before the session starts. This way we can help them with technical issues before the session, which can help keep technical issues from disrupting the class once it starts.
Most internet browsers work whether on PC or Mac, but there are potential conflicts with some web conferencing platforms. The best way to check to make sure that connectivity won’t be an issue is to have a test session with the learners before the live session.
Wired internet connections are preferred, but Wi-Fi is perfectly acceptable, although it can be prone to fluctuations in signal strength. This could cause the web conference to drop learners from the session, resulting in missed content, repeated rejoin attempts and frustrations with the virtual classroom process. The only thing you can do to alleviate this risk is to recommend using a wired internet connection for your learners and make sure they understand the issues that can arise with use of Wi-Fi so they are prepared.
If participants are expecting to connect via mobile devices (BYOD), you need to provide specific instructions and clarify how the virtual classroom works differently on each individual device. You also need to design for the BYOD environment. (To learn more about how to maximize the virtual classroom for mobile users, click here.)
If you are using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) for the audio portion of your virtual classroom, ensure learners know what equipment they will need by sending out a list of requirements before your session.
The addition of headsets to the classroom means you may have to troubleshoot for learners who can hear but not speak — again, the test session helps with equipment setup for success in the live event.
These challenges should be documented so that you have the ability to quickly offer support during future live sessions.
The second way that you can anticipate and alleviate technology risk is to arrange for access to live technical support during your live session. If you are working with a producer, the producer should be the person managing the relationship between participants and technical support.
The best way to do this is to have technical support telephone numbers available for the virtual classroom vendor that you are using. If there is something going wrong that you can’t troubleshoot prior to class starting, you can refer the learner to the technical support number who can hopefully help them get everything working before class starts.
Alternatively, while you don’t necessarily need to train your IT personnel in the web conferencing solution, the more support options you have, the easier it will be for you and your learners.
Once the live session has started, you need to not only help learners with technical problems but also concentrate on delivering the learning content, so you may need to ask learners to reach out to technical support themselves while you focus on the job at hand.
The third way you can anticipate and alleviate technology risk is to be totally prepared yourself! As a facilitator, you need to "tool up" for your live sessions.
Your ideal toolkit should have a headset for use in virtual classrooms — there is nothing worse than holding a telephone handset for two hours, getting that crick in your neck, while you’re trying to concentrate on delivering a great training program. It’s essential that you have both hands free to work the various notes and materials so that you can deliver 100 percent of the training session.
Ideally, having access to a second computer or second screen allows you to have one showing the presenter view and the other showing the participant view. This allows you to see how your slides are building for the audience, which will help you to pace your delivery accordingly.
It also lends itself as a backup should a computer act up or the laptop batteries drain. (Always have the charger plugged in — it may be silly to remind you, but people forget!)
During your sessions, the other type of risk you will encounter is behavioral. These are the risks associated with your learners and their behavior during the session. We always hope everyone will arrive prepared and ready to learn but just in case, you need to have some strategies in place to handle disruptive behavior in the virtual classroom.
Two of the most common ones we see are the “Blamer” and the “Disconnector.”
The Blamer is the learner who claims he or she never received the joining instructions or the pre-work or the participant guide — even though all the other learners in the session did.
It may be the case that this one learner did not get the emails if he or she was added to the session late, so mitigate the risk of this happening by ensuring you have a mechanism for emailing the missing resources immediately. (Having the roster at hand with email addresses helps.)
If you are working with a producer (technical support provider for the live event), he or she can handle that task while you continue with the session.
Addressing the Blamer’s complaints quickly and efficiently helps to avoid derailing the session.
The Disconnector is not the person who actually signs off but the one who mentally checks out from the session — still signed in but unresponsive to questions, whether verbally or in chat. The primary challenge that the Disconnector brings to the virtual classroom is their absenteeism, which can spark other learners to start behaving in the same way.
Your learners’ managers may be partially responsible for this behavior, as the manager is very often the one interrupting your Disconnector, taking him or her away from the session to attend to some other task or activity. (For some tips on getting management on board see, “101 Tips to Motivate the Virtual Learner: Management Mandate.”)
To combat the Disconnector, keep engagement and interaction high by setting expectations about attendance and pre-session work and by calling upon learners for their input so they know you are giving them attention. If you have a producer, you can also ask the producer to check to make sure someone hasn’t disappeared by engaging the learner in a private chat.
Try to ensure you’ve connected with every single member of your audience by taking the roster and placing a tick next to the learner’s name when you engage him or her. This allows you to see who has not contributed as much and you can call on them specifically for answers or suggestions to make sure they are not “checking out.”
Both technology risks and behavioral risks are easily alleviated if you’re prepared for them. Planning ahead and communicating with participants about specific technology concerns is critical for success, and working with your producer during the live sessions can minimize the possibility that these risks will derail your program.
Interested in learning more about how to facilitate a great live session? Discover how you can earn your Virtual Classroom Facilitator Badge with our Virtual Classroom Facilitator Certificate course. To download the course description, click on the grahpic below.